Keep Dreaming: This week in Palestine

On a recent group trip, traveling barely 30 minutes from the center of Jerusalem, we managed to get to places where none of us had ever been.

December 10, 2010 15:35
An antique poster reading "Visit Palestine."

visit palestine_521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Looking for a unique holiday destination, something exotic, inexpensive, close to home and not yet inundated by Israelis? I’ve discovered just the spot. It’s called Palestine. I got up close by joining a tour run by Ir Amim, an NGO that “seeks to render Jerusalem a more viable and equitable city for the Israelis and Palestinians who share it.”

It consisted of a four-hour whirlwind trip through our own backyard, traveling barely 30 minutes in any direction from the city’s center, and still managing to get to places where none of our group of 30 had ever been. Given that a third of the municipality’s residents dwell in these areas, it’s hard to escape the reality that we live in a city already divided.

Take a look. Jerusalem today numbers 780,000 inhabitants. Approximately 280,000 of them, or 35 percent are Palestinians. Only a handful are Christian. Of the remainder who are Jews, 60% of the children are enrolled in haredi schools. Do the math. The city is home to more Palestinians than Zionists. And their numerical advantage becomes more pronounced with each passing year. One more statistic to make the point: Since the city was unified in 1967, the Arab population has increased by almost 300%, the Jewish population by less than half of that.

“So why don’t we feel the Palestinian presence in the city council?” asks one of my fellow travelers. The answer is simple: They don’t vote. Not because they aren’t entitled to, but because they choose not to. Following the Six Day War, east Jerusalem Arabs were given the prerogative of claiming Israeli citizenship or permanent resident status. More than 99% opted for the latter. That gives them the right to vote and run for office in municipal elections, but their leadership has consistently insisted that they boycott the polls, arguing that participating in them would be tantamount to granting legitimacy to Israel’s sovereignty.

As a consequence of this policy, combined with Israeli short-sightedness, Arab sectors of the city receive less than 10% of the municipal budget. Surely there are different ways of presenting these statistics and a multiplicity of imaginative ways in which to assign the blame, but the bottom line is that Muslim areas are considerably underdeveloped relative to the Jewish neighborhoods. And for many, the resulting hardships have been exacerbated by the eightmeter- high concrete barrier that meanders along the hills on Jerusalem’s outskirts.

ONE OF the places from which the impact of this wall can be seen most clearly is at the southern edge of Gilo. From there, one has an unobstructed view of the village of Walaja, the town of Beit Jala and the city of Bethlehem. On second thought, “unobstructed” is perhaps not the best choice of words. What you see from here is most definitely not what you see from there.

Approximately one third of Walaja extends over Jerusalem’s municipal boundary. Were the wall to be built along that border, the village residents would be cut off from one another and from their lands. Citing security considerations, the Defense Ministry planned to completely encircle the village within the wall; the residents prefer to be on its far side, even though that would mean forgoing easy access to Jerusalem. The entire matter, too complex to expound upon here, is currently under consideration by the High Court of Justice.

Beit Jala is a different story. Most are familiar with the town as the site from which Fatah launched unprovoked sniper and mortar attacks against residents of Gilo following the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. But there is another narrative. As far as the Arabs are concerned, Gilo’s very existence is provocation enough, built as it was on Palestinian land expropriated following the Six Day War.

“When I walked the streets of Beit Jala for the first time,” writes Xavier Abu Eid, an adviser to the PLO negotiating team, “my life changed within seconds. I was a young boy inspired by the memories of Judeh, my grandfather... From Chile, where we used to live, he told me of the sweetest apricots, the biggest figs, the tastiest olives and the best olive oil... I would never trade watching a sunset from among our olive trees for being in any other spot in this world; nor would I consider anything I’ve experienced in Chile as pleasant as a walk along the upper edge of town.”

When he takes that walk, however, the Jewish neighborhood he sees is more than an eyesore on an otherwise pastoral landscape. It is the very symbol of Jewish expansionism. Abu Eid continues, “But this fairy tale that diaspora Palestinians make of our hometowns is sadly contrasted with the reality of the Israeli occupation... [that] has turned every single aspect of our lives into an open wound that only freedom will heal.”

Across the wadi, Christmas celebrations will soon be in full swing, with Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity broadcast to every corner of the world. But the Palestinian Authority wants to keep Bethlehem in the limelight for the rest of the year as well. In the December issue of the tourist magazine This Week in Palestine (in which the Beit Jala story also appears), there are several articles about the city.

The most engaging carries a headline referring to the birthplace of Jesus as “An Icon of Fashion... The Paris of Palestine,” and extols “the beauty and style of Bethlemite women... a feast for the eyes of any visitor to this glorious town.” It continues with a description of the veil that was worn “to cover her head when a woman left her house,” bemoans the departure from that custom and expresses the hope that the article will serve “not only to bring back to the reader’s imagination the beauty of the traditional dress but also to encourage designers to reintroduce this beauty into the modern dresses of Bethlehem.” Paris be warned.

I PICKED up my copy of This Week in Palestine at east Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel, which my wife and I decided was a fitting setting in which to digest all we had experienced throughout the morning. I also took a copy of Visit Palestine and a complimentary map of “Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and Old City” with the areas under PA control clearly delineated.

In the genteel environment of this lush garden restaurant, with its sophisticated menu, polite maitre d’ and professional waiters, even the call of the muezzin sounded romantic, lulling us into imagining that peace might be just around the corner, if only we could learn to listen to one another.

In fact, it was so calm and peaceful that one could almost be tempted into ignoring the PA sanctioned study denying any connection between the Western Wall and the Temple. The objectivity of the report could hardly be challenged if approved by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, whose doctoral thesis asserted that the Holocaust claimed the lives of only 890,000 Jews, and was in any case the result of premeditated collaboration between Nazi and Zionist leaders.

In this atmosphere, one might even be tempted into disregarding Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s confirmation that the inferno on the Carmel was an expression of God’s anger with Israel, a punishment from Allah. After all, his take on things was remarkably similar to that of Shas mentor Ovadia Yosef, who blamed the conflagration on our own lax standards of Shabbat observance.

Yes, one could almost be tempted – but not quite. There is, after all, a line distinguishing competing narratives from blatant revisionism. Until those with whom we need to make peace are prepared to respect that line, it is going to be impossible to draw any on a map that would resolve our conflict. The wall now enveloping Jerusalem, however problematic, is the least of the barriers separating us. That’s why I recommend a visit to Palestine. These observations are not about recognizing statehood, but reality. Besides, it’s always good to get to know one’s neighbors.

The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.

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